Unexpectedly, this year my "Christmas moment" came in a church. Oddly enough, I don't believe I've ever experienced one there before.
It was a glorious day in September, and I was helping to lead a conference and retreat for the state's Catholic prison chaplains in beautiful Canandaigua, in western New York. The chapel in the retreat center overlooked the lake on a day when the weather was postcard-perfect: sunny and 75 degrees.
I admit that I was not looking forward to Mass on this particular day. A Ukrainian Catholic liturgy was planned, something I knew little about. What I did know was that everything in this Eastern rite Mass is sung -- everything -- and it therefore takes longer than the Roman Catholic Mass with which I am familiar. Ugh. On a day like this? Really?
Perhaps it was its novelty, combined with a large dose of incense, but I found the Ukrainian liturgy to be filled with profound meaning and reverence.
Singing the words kind of unlocked them for me in a way that empowered me to understand them. Each time the celebrant chanted, "Be attentive!" it was as if God was speaking directly to me, and it snapped me back from my tendency to either daydream or worry about what was next on the schedule. I had no choice but to partake.
There is much repetition in the Eastern rite; many prayers and petitions are repeated three times. By the third time in each set, I heard the words.
The liturgy is flooded with prayers for peace, which seemed so timely and so needed in our violence-ridden world. There are lots of reminders that only God can offer true peace, in our hearts and in our cities, and that only He is life-giving.
Many of the litanies from the Mass still echo in my head months later, and I find myself praying them as I go about washing the dishes or driving the car:
"Be merciful to me, a sinner."
"Heal my soul and my body."
"Enlighten my eyes and my heart."
"That I may no longer live for myself."
It was during the prayers after communion that I experienced the "moment:" that instant when the essence of Christmas, Jesus Himself, penetrated my being and swelled my heart with sudden understanding and gratitude.
I was completely centered on Christ: on seeing His face in the people around me, on viewing His beauty on full display outside the windows, on listening to Him in the stillness of my heart. I felt connected to Christ not only spiritually, but physically, emotionally and intellectually, as well.
(When was the last time that ever happened to me at Sunday Mass? Honest answer: never.)
While we wait expectantly for the birth of the baby Jesus, let us clear away the distractions of our daily lives so that we might make room for Him. We can find Him, experience Him and connect with Him in both likely and unlikely places.
(Mrs. Gallagher is director of pro-life activities for the New York State Catholic Conference, based in Albany; its website is www.nyscatholic.org. She is indebted to Rev. Ilie Babota of the Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy of Stamford, Conn., the organizer and main celebrant of the Ukrainian Mass she attended.)